A constant question in regard to Shepherd’s stories, narratives, commentaries, is–where’s the truth based on reality and where’s the art based on created material? What is “imagination,” anyway? Shepherd spoke on the radio as though his stories were true–and they came out of his extraordinary memory:
I’ll never forget one time, I’m a kid about–oh, I must have been in about the eighth grade….
As I put it in EYF!, “His stories contained stuff we knew was true, or easily verified, that melded seamlessly into each increment toward the unlikely and unbelievable. We did not know were to draw the line. W did not know that there was a place for a line. we did not know that a line had any need to be thought about. Worst of all–no, best of all– there was no identifiable borderland where a theoretical line might accurately have been drawn….Jean Shepherd’s stories of his childhood always signified, but as ‘truth’ they were especially suspect.”
But why I happen to be able to pull it out of my vast Kodachrome file–busted up slides of memory, is because, one, it happens t be my profession. You know, my job, the work that I’ve chosen in life, is mostly, totally introspection–and then transmitting it out. That’s what an artist does, really.
Of special significance here is to another related idea I discuss in my book that begins, “…what was truly extraordinary was his ability to remember so many bits and pieces from the past and present, which made his monologues seem real through their detail. Actual remembering was not a simple act with Jean Shepherd: it was a major tool of his creativity.”:
Do you ever have the feeling that half the stuff you remember just didn’t exist at all? That you sort of made it up? [Here, more than in most cases, he is obviously talking to personnel in the control room.] Or in some nutty way? You mean you don’t have that problem ever, Herb [Squire, his engineer]? You mean you–you really believe that everything you remember actually happened?
“….Maybe Shepherd was not always sure how much he was making up and was suggesting that to some extent we all create our memories. Certainly it seemed for Shepherd that memory is a baffling mix of conscious and unconscious fabrication.”
I realize that I believe that most all of what I remember actually happened! (For many years I’ve told as true an incident regarding what I experienced walking home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan–strange occurrence. Only recently I’ve begun to wonder if it was just a very realistic and convincing dream.) What got me thinking again about this topic was an op-ed article from the December 2, 2014 New York Times. The article, by two psychology professors, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, is titled “Why Our Memory Fails Us.” They begin by describing errors in memory by George W. Bush and Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, and host of the TV series, “Cosmos.” The writers comment:
“Erroneous witness recollections have become so concerning that the National Academy of Sciences convened an expert panel to review the state of research on the topic….
“When we recall our own memories, we are not extracting a perfect record of our experiences and playing it back verbatim. Most people believe that memory works this way, but it doesn’t. Instead, we are effectively whispering a message from our past to our present, reconstructing it on the fly each time. We get a lot of details right, but when our memories change, we only ‘hear’ the most recent version of the message….
“It is just as misguided to conclude that someone who misremembers must be lying as it is to defend false memory in the face of contradictory evidence. We should be more understanding of mistakes by others, and credit them when they admit they were wrong. We are all fabulists, and we must all get used to it.”
Continuing what I’d written about this subject: “Maybe Shepherd was not always sure how much he was making up and was suggesting that to some extent we all create our memories. Certainly, it seemed for Shepherd that memory is a baffling mix of conscious and unconscious fabrications. Thus it will never be fully possible to separate Shepherd’s reality from his performance–or indeed, from everyday talk. As Shepherd’s friend Bob Brown puts it, ‘He had the ability to weave things that really couldn’t possibly be true–in conversation. was a difficult guy to know where reality stopped and fiction began. What he saw–or whether he saw it literally or whether he saw it in his mind–became reality for everybody around him.’
As for what to think about the extent of Shepherd’s memory and
imagination–I’m less certain now than I’ve been in years.
[Images in this post, as per many others, pulled
from varied Internet sources.]
MAINE DECIDING TO BE BEAUTIFUL
When Jean Shepherd vacations locally rather than traveling to far-away places, he goes to Maine. In earlier trips, he goes there with his third wife, Lois Nettleton, who remembers that he would fish and she would enjoy cooking his catch. In subsequent years he travels there with his fourth wife, Leigh Brown. They buy a house on Snow Pond, north of Augusta, off the main roads. They keep the location secret so they will not be bothered by his overly-enthusiastic fans.
Maine is his favorite state. Maine is one the few American places he does special programs about, so it’s not surprising that he once referred to Maine as “my favorite foreign country.”
Consciously giddy in one broadcast, in a paean to the natural glories of Maine, Shepherd permits his emotions to slip beyond passion into awed stupefaction. (Or so it would seem if, in the audio of this homage, we fail to note his ironic tone of voice delivered over a buoyant, carefree rendition of the instantly recognizable opening bars of “Humoresque,” a Dvorak dainty ditty that long ago achieved some notoriety as the perky tune for various comic verses regarding passenger train toilets.) Shepherd does mean what he says and he is truly overwhelmed—but he wants us to know that he knows it. After all, publicly revealed unrestrained commitment on any issue might lead to a negative judgment regarding his intellectual capacity and stability.
This segment about Maine says little about anything except the landscape, and is thus rather different from most of his other travel narratives. Although he discusses Maine on other shows, he does not do so within the context of a “travel story,” so those comments don’t fit this present grouping. However, this appreciation of a location’s ambiance is kin to Shepherd’s affectionate commentary about the many-sided beauties of Ireland found in a subsequent chapter.
I am in the State of Maine. I don’t think there’s anything more beautiful than the State of Maine when it’s deciding to be beautiful. It is a majestic state.
Ever since I was a kid I have been reading about the North Woods in Maine. They don’t have North Woods in Indiana, you know. They don’t have any Maine at all in northern Indiana. I would see pictures in the outdoor magazines like Hunting and Fishing and Field and Stream and all these great magazines. I would see pictures of these magnificent Maine lakes that were nestled like veritable jewels out of nature’s fantastic diadem of creativity. Veritable jewels in this great, vast, rich, verdant green forest. Glistening under that bright northern sun. With just the slightest edge of a breeze. Just the slightest edge rippling that crystalline water. Ahhhh, ahhhh, ahhhh!
And below the surface of that crystal water, great, ravishing, smallmouth bass lay waiting—just for the slightest suggestion of a Royal Coachman fly laid upon that glassy surface with the expert, magnificent technique of a born artist of the fly rod. Me.
A Royal Coachman fishing fly–
not necessarily the exact type Shep used
Well, finally, at long last, this young pilgrim on the great road of life achieved enough of the necessary scratch to get himself up to Maine. And in a rented rowboat made out of the purest lead—finally—at long last—he found himself on a magnificent, beautiful—encased with the great pine forests—a lovely, lovely, remote lake. Ain’t that great? Isn’t that beautiful now? I’m telling you the truth!
I’ll tell you this—I don’t know quite how to approach this adventure because it may cause embarrassment to the guilty, who are still out there. But I got this boat and this is the first time I have ever been in Maine. It was about my second or third day there and on the back of this rowboat I had rented myself one of these tiny outboard motors that had about, roughly, about the horsepower of a Waring Blender. It took me about forty minutes to go twenty feet, with the current, and downhill. A lot of those lakes are downhill and uphill in Maine, you know. This little motor would go catut catut catut catut catut catut. It’s very embarrassing—a guy rode right past me, saying, “You want a hitch?” You know how those Maine guys are—got a certain type of humor, “Like a hitch?” I’d say no. Catut catut catut catut, I’m driving my little motor there. It’s about the size of a football with a little tin propeller at the bottom, and I am heading out in this beautiful lake.
Snow Pond Lake
(aka Messalonskee Lake)
on which Shepherd will one day buy a summer house.
[Addition=a photo of Shep’s house on Snow Pond.
The new owners did a major renovation instead of tearing it down.]
Stay tuned for more evocations of Maine
A few years back, in regard to the world of Jean Shepherd,
someone asked, “Who’s got the juice?”
Regarding Jean Shepherd,
what are some major sources of knowledge and material?
[Above, my Shep poster and the banner
Jackie Lannin made for me]
I’d say that there are three major sources, each somewhat different from the others. In addition, with Nick Mantis making his Shep documentary, he is gathering additional material, which is making him another important player in the game. College professor Quentin Schultze, who, years ago, began teaching courses about Shepherd’s work, has only recently become more widely known as a Shep authority. Several other sources should also be noted. Internet sources of audios, etc. should include the brass figlagee: http://shepcast.blogspot.com and several others, and some YouTube videos. Major collectors such as Pete Delaney continue to supply important material. What follows is just what I consider the big three, noting the major areas of their contributions.
JIM CLAVIN: HISTORICAL REPOSITORY
Jim’s essential website for all things Shep is www.flicklives.com . Jim has been collecting and archiving Shepherd material for years, and those with Shepherd material often contact him to send him previously unknown material. He has amassed an incredible archive regarding all aspects of Shepherd’s life and work, plus listing other various sources. I could not have done much of my work regarding Shepherd without being able to make reference to Jim’s site.
Jim Clavin, eb, and Lou Miano– 3 Shep fans
MAX SCHMID: PROMOTION AND DISTRIBUTION
Max, as a WBAI FM broadcaster for many years, has promoted Shepherd however and whenever he can, including years of early Tuesday morning rebroadcasts of Shepherd programs. People with Shep audios and other material often contact him and deliver the goods to him. He organized and presented a session with him and me on Shep for an Old Time Radio convention–see photo below. He continues to rebroadcast Shep when he can, and he is a fine source of available audios and videos of much Shepherd material: www.sheptapes.com
EUGENE B. BERGMANN: INTERPRETATION AND ESSAYS
I’m the source of some of the earliest audios of Shepherd’s New York broadcasts (I recorded him from 1956 to about 1963). My Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, containing an overview of his work and creativity was published by Applause Theatre and Cinema Books in March, 2005. My transcriptions and introductions to dozens of Shep army stories, Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles, was published by Opus Books in August, 2013. I’ve been interviewed numerous times for print articles, radio broadcasts, and once on CBS Television regarding these books and other Shepherd matters. I’ve also written and published a number of articles in various periodicals about Shep, including a foreword for Caseen Gaines’ A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic. I’ve published over 200 posts on my blog regarding many aspects of Shepherd’s life and works.
Other Shepherd enthusiasts continue to comment and help sustain his memory, and all of them are appreciated. To my delight, various well-known (and some lesser celebrated) people have also commented on the importance of Shepherd in their lives. Some I interviewed for my first book, and some, such as Jerry Seinfeld, Keith Olbermann, and Dee Snider, I’ve only subsequently become aware of as Shepherd fans. Even more recently, I found out that R. L. Stine (Goosebumps book-series author) and contemporary novelist Tom Wolfe, are also Shep fans.
eb and a well-known Shep fan
eb and a well-known Shep fan
[In foreground, four different editions of I, Libertine,
and on wall, an original Shep still life in ink on a paper towel.
It makes everybody that much more irritated when you get back into real life. It’s like people who were in a crowd on VJ day can’t forget. People who were in a crowd during a moment of genuine rapport. The minute you go back to the fistfight and the hollering and the yelling, somehow it tastes even more bitter—that fistfight and hollering and yelling. And there’s a strange nostalgic feeling for that moment. That great moment when everyone’s passing the fried chicken around, that sun is sitting up there, and they’re singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and that old man behind me is saying, “But they’re singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ We’re usually quiet when they’re singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ madam. Please, will you please?”
[Last of March on D. C. Next travel=Maine]
Recently encountered, and very common comment on the internet:
“Storyteller Jean Shepherd (born July 26, 1921) was a fixture on American radio from the 1950s to the 1970s. He is best remembered as the voice of the narrator in A Christmas Story, a classic holiday film based on his semi-autobiographical tale.”
A word that I’ve encountered innumerable times in regard to Jean Shepherd’s work.
Some familiar with my belief know that I consider this balderdash!
Some definitions of the word found on the internet:
1. pertaining to or being a fictionalized account of an author’s own life. Pertaining to or being a work of fiction strongly influenced byevents in an author’s life.
2. Dealing partly with the writer’s own life but also containing fictional elements.
3. Of, relating to, or being a work that falls between fiction and autobiography: a semiautobiographical novel.
4. Of or relating to a work that combines autobiography and fiction
Semi- or half-fiction is a blend, a percentage, estimable by the writer and sometimes by “characters,” of what actually has taken place and what could have taken place. It begins to replace what in fact did take place….
“Creative nonfiction” is intensely cumbersome as the name of a literary genre, and yet it must be the best name for it so far…. “creative nonfiction” to mean the factual basis or sequence of life events — not meaning “plot” in fiction — matters less than the artistry or creative arrangements at play in the work.
EXACTLY IN WHAT PARTS OF A Christmas Story–or any other Shep story–does the autobiographical part reside? Only in the general location of the story and having parents and a kid brother.
HOW MANY ENCOUNTERS HAVE WE ALL HAD COLLECTIVELY–in which we have reliably been told or discovered that any of the plot details of a Shep kid or army story (beyond a character’s name, or a location) have actually occurred?
I’ve never encountered any.
Example: Flickinger family denies Flick got tongue stuck to a pole.
[And yes, I know that the base story references “The Cleveland Street Kid.”]
* * *
Here’s what we can verify as non-fiction in his stories:
•SOME ACTUAL NAMES OF PEOPLE THAT HE KNEW AS A KID.
•NAMES OF HIS BROTHER AND SOME FRIENDS.
•PLACES HE IS KNOWN TO HAVE BEEN AS KID AND IN THE ARMY.
Shepherd told his stories on the radio as though they actually happened to him, but he explained (to my satisfaction) that it was all fiction–on Alan Colmes 1998 show he said, “I want my stuff to sound real. And so when I tell a story, I tell it in the first person, so it sounds like–by the way, that’s the best way to tell a good story, in the first person–that it sounds like it actually happened to me. It didn’t….I’m a fiction writer. I’m not sitting there doing a biography or an autobiography.”
The quotes from Shep’s books are his author statements at the front of each book.
IN GOD WE TRUST: “The characters, places, and events described herein re entirely fictional, and any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental, accidental, or the result of faulty imagination.”
WANDA HICKEY: [No statement found]
THE FERRARI IN THE BEDROOM: “Large parts of the following are fiction, other parts based on fact. Still others are pure mythology. Some characters are real, others are figments of a harassed imagination. To the real, I apologize. To the others, the back of my hand.”
A FISTFUL OF FIG NEWTONS: “This book is a work of the imagination. However, some essays are observations and conclusion. The characters depicted in the short stories are fictional. They do not represent any actual individuals, living or dead.”
HENRY MORGAN, RADIO COMIC [Quoted in The Realist, 1960]: “He has talked about that youth of his in such detail that I suspect it lasted about forty years.”
JEAN SHEPHERD: [On Alan Colmes interview, 1998] “I’m a fiction writer.”
HUGH M. HEFNER, PLAYBOY PUBLISHER: [interview, 2002] “The fact is that Jean’s stories were invented—and not personal experiences.”
Although on his own show he maintained the illusion that the stories were real, in the author’s declaration in his books, he insisted that all those stories (transcribed and augmented from his radio stories) were fiction. As I put it in EYF! “He went to extremes…in order to refute the idea that, rather than being a creative artist, he was merely remembering. He was a victim of his own success in creating the illusion of truth.”
I googled “semi-autobiographical” and came up with lots of stuff, but only the image that appears below seemed appropriate. The only reference I found to it: thenewdaughter.com would not open. I don’t know what the creator meant to suggest in the picture, but for me, I’ll use it to suggest that Shep found himself unable to escape from his box of self-created fiction masquerading as non-fiction:
A “real” guy in his self-created (fictional) box.
I say that, to describe Shep’s stories (kid and army) we do not use
“autobiographical” or “semi-autobiographical,” but
Coming back. You’d expect terrible disorganization. No it wasn’t. We were all drifting back to all the busses and I was sitting down on the basin waiting for our bus and people were walking around and they were drinking Cokes. It was like a great company picnic where everybody knew everybody else. Waving, talking, eating. And finally the busses assembled and one by one the busses took off. Our bus backed out, going north and, all along the route through town—and this was late, about eight-thirty or so—there were people walking, waving at our bus, which didn’t have any big, jazzy sign, it was just a busload of plain, ordinary people sitting in there. And they were waving and hollering and grinning. It wasn’t a feeling of, “Boy, we showed ‘em, didn’t we!” but it was a feeling of, “Boy, it was wonderful that you came!” People were riding along in their cars, just ordinary people, and they were all waving at the busses from their cars as we were going out of town, going north.
Out along the highway, millions of busses one after the other. One after the other! A fantastic parade. And in the end, I’m sure it was a parade that no one will ever forget. A truly historic moment. Not a historic moment politically even. It was a historic moment for a lot of people who did not conceive of people being this way. It’s a new concept, really. For a moment there. At least for a moment it was there.
It was a historic moment
for a lot of people
who did not conceive
of people being this way.
It’s a new concept, really.
For a moment there.
At least for a moment it was there.
I ♥ NOSTALGIA?
NOT NOSTALGIA ?!?!!!
Shepherd’s sometimes questionable claims to be anti-nostalgia have been pointed out, and certainly the major effect of his stories and commentary is against those feelings for the “good old days.” Despite the many times he insisted that he was against nostalgia, he was frequently accused of it. A recently heard Shepherd defense is especially emphatic:
Might as well come right to the face of it, that a—you know a lot of people say, “Shepherd, why do you tell stories about when you were a kid?” Now they are under the impression that what I am doing is dealing in nostalgia! Nothing could be further from the truth. Is a guy lying on the psychiatrist’s couch telling the analyst about some fantastically, spectacularly bad thing that happened to him at the age of eight—is he indulging in nostalgia? You better believe he ain’t.
And under no circumstances does Shepherd feel that when he was a kid things were better than they are now. I just want to get that really clearly stated. And furthermore, he also wants to state categorically he does not feel that being a child is the best of all possible worlds. He does not feel that when you were a child things were better than they are now, nor did you feel better than you do now. In fact, the actual truth is, you probably felt worse [laughs] most of the time.
So, the only time Shepherd will relate a story about when he was a child is because he is delineating a moment—a moment of traumatic reality—which has created the world of the adult that is now in existence. Was that good or bad? Neither! It’s a fact.
All this is true–I believe it–but on occasion, something that can only be described as nostalgia, does creep into Shep’s work. To paraphrase Shakespeare, sometimes the Shepherd doth protest too much.
And all this time, the real people were seated on the Mall, the great crowd, eating fried chicken and really digging each other for the first time, probably, in a couple of hundred years in America. Nothing to do with chauvinism, but it just happened that it was one of those days—for one of the rare times in the world.
And up there, is business as usual with the celebs. If I had seen a couple of those guys marching, I would feel better about it. I didn’t see many of them do it. But one guy I saw—a famous American author—sitting in a bush. Not autographing or getting cheered on the Lincoln Memorial with the other guys. I was going through a bush and there he was sitting. He said, “Hey, Shep,” and he made a couple of comments: “Boy, what a rotten beard!”
I said, “Yeah. What are you doing here?” In a bush drinking a Coke! He was just sitting there digging it. And I’m sure that in the end, this guy will know a lot more about what went on than those clowns up there on that great big platform.
The whole thing was tremendous, to me personally a genuine education. Among other things I remember one little incident—the food incident. About John Wingate the reporter. You know reporters have got the best of everything, they go down and stay at a hotel. It’s the way a reporter has to work. He’s got a tight schedule. He’s not like other people. Well, Wingate was down there and he’d been working all day long. Newsmen have a devil of a time, sweating and everything else. A large lady came up to him and gave him half of her lunch. She said, “You know, you probably had a lot more work than I did. Here was this large colored lady with flowered dress giving John the fried chicken and John was absolutely— John said, “This is incredible. Just incredible.” I saw Lester Smith in the crowd—he’s one of the calmest, best reporters I’ve ever known and this was one of the few times I’ve seen him absolutely thrown off base.
The feeling again, is a feeling that I can’t describe to you. I’m so glad I went down. And even the hard-bitten guys from Life Magazine, Time Magazine—you could see a great feeling that it was not a news story. You know what I mean by “news story”? It was an experience, an actual experience. All the while the people on the platform are talking about human rights and the human rights were being demonstrated. The word, somehow, didn’t have much meaning really—it was what was going on that had meaning. Everyone had a sense, even the most militant, that the battle was damn near over! In spite of the fact that everyone knows there’s a lot of work—a tremendous amount—to do, it was an affirmation of something that everyone felt never could happen! Not just that it was held well, it was the attitude of everybody. It was just normal people on the streets. A great moment, I’ll tell you that. A tremendously moving experience. And I’ve been involved in a lot of crowd movements before. And, I’ll tell you, I never had that kind of feeling.
“New Faces” in which Shep appeared.
Interesting that Shep is in “New Faces” of 1962, when he’d been around and very active in radio, live performance, mostly off-Broadway theatrical plays, and jazz in New York since 1955. Maybe he felt that he needed the widespread boost then, when he was about to abandon acting in mostly small play productions.
Drawing in ad by Herb Gardner
In a broadcast, Shepherd comments that in the late 1950s there were many live entertainments, called “revues,” with short skits and other performances. He performed in a couple of them. Akin to the series of New Faces productions and to his Look, Charlie, cobbled together with Shel Silverstein, Herb Gardner, and Lois Nettleton and which they performed on the Lower East side on Monday nights in late 1959 and early 1960. Some sources only list 3 performances, but they also performed a couple of times in early 1960. (Mondays are usually dead nights for theater, the playhouses usually closed, and thus available for productions done on the cheap.) The Red Onion Jazz Band, according to Frank Laidlaw, one of its members, sat apart from each other on the stage, facing in opposite directions—a spotlight would shine on each member as Jean, in his monolog, cued them. They accompanied Jean, Shel, and others on a number of songs, including some with Jean head-thumping and playing the nose flute. Jean’s improvisations, woven between the other performances, presumably held it all together. He reportedly hurled many invectives.
Shep head-thumping, as drawn by
Shep Silverstein in the show’s program.
It’s said that, among other pieces in the show, as a Roman emperor, Shepherd was fed grapes by Lois Nettleton, his romantic interest beginning in the late 1950s. Did this master/servant girl image, presumably concocted by Jean, strike Lois as a strange depiction of loving partners? To end the show, Shepherd came out and shouted, “Stop! Stop! What is this? This is total insanity!” and according to a Shepherd fan, he “walked down the center aisle and invited everyone in the audience to join him for coffee across the street at Ratner’s Delicatessen.” I remember Jules Feiffer was in the rear of the theater. Shep said, ‘Jules, they don’t believe me.’” Shepherd fan, comic Andy Kaufman (who was about ten years old when Look, Charlie was performed), years later, after his own Carnegie Hall performance, in apparent and unspoken tribute, invited his audience out for milk and cookies.
Andy drinking milk during his
outing with his audience.
(If he got it from Shep, Andy should have acknowledged him for the inspiration. Just as I hereby acknowledge Lisa Rogak’s book, A Boy Named Shel for the “Stop! Stop!” quote, and www.flicklves.com for the fan quote.)
It’s said that all the performances of Look, Charlie were recorded, but as of now, no audio has surfaced. One more damnably elusive, legendary grail for which to search and pine.
Then they brought out one entertainer after another. This was the entertainment before the real thing. In the middle of it all, because we were not in our proper location, somebody decided to bring our delegation up toward the front. We had been between the plumbers and the cement workers and a Catholic local from Baltimore. So we wound up in the right place and suddenly I got a new perspective on it all. Because I was now looking at it from a very different direction and I could see all the newsmen there—very official—roped off. You couldn’t get near them. And they were going to report it.
And I saw all these official show-bizz types frantically running around getting photographed. Somehow, that was the one discordant moment that I had. I didn’t see any of these people who got their pictures in all the papers doing any marching. Getting their pictures taken and signing autographs as though somehow, they vaguely were responsible for goodness. As though all of show business had gathered and they were autographing each other and loving each other and taking pictures with each other. And all the while they were signing autographs, Martin Luther King was giving his brilliant speech.
I HAVE A DREAM